Humpback Whale Conservation: Un-muddying the waters

The recent decision by the federal government to change the conservation status of the North Pacific population of humpback whale under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) from Threatened to a species of Special Concern has led to a flurry of media attention. One of the major reasons for such attention is because, in the words of one media outlet, such a decision is a way of “opening [the] door” for the Northern Gateway pipeline. Unfortunately, most of the initial media coverage of this story has been poor at conveying how the assessment process works and its possible implications.

Humpback Whales Correctly Reclassified

First, the federal government actually followed the legal process for species –reassessments; they acted on the advice of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which recommended back in May of 2011 that the Humpback whale be re-classified as Special Concern.

The decision by COSEWIC, an independent (i.e., arms-length from government) advisory body to the government, was based on internationally-recognized criteria established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the best available scientific information at the time (2011). Essentially, the decision by COSEWIC was based on the occurrence of at least 2,100 whales in BC waters (not including yearling calves) as part of a global estimate of about 18,000 whales and a positive growth rate of the population of between 4 and 7% per year globally and 4% per year in BC. While threats to humpback whales persist (e.g., ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement), the major historical threat was eliminated when hunting was banned in 1966.

In summary, the federal government based its decision on sound, independent scientific information and debate (and following a period of public comment); it was not simply a within government decision to arbitrarily change the status of the species for their convenience.

Reclassification ≠ Northern Gateway Approval

Second, the change in status of the humpback whale does not clear the way for Northern Gateway as some media reports have suggested. True, the change from Threatened to Special Concern removes legal prohibitions on the protection of critical habitat, but a Special Concern status still requires the government to devise a “management plan” for the species and its habitat. While obviously not as strong a tool as legal prohibitions against habitat destruction for a species with a Threatened status, a Special Concern designation still provides some mechanism to hold the government accountable for habitat management.

Also, and very importantly, the pipeline proposal is still very much a theoretical development, vigorously opposed by a large number, perhaps even a clear majority, of British Columbians (as well as other Canadians). Certainly in one of the communities to be most affected by the pipeline (Kitimat) a majority of residents opposed the project in the recent plebiscite held there. The recent Joint Review Panel also concluded that it was likely that there would be significant impacts of the project on at least two other species at risk (Grizzly Bear and Caribou). Consequently, these and many other issues suggest that even if the pipeline is ultimately approved by the federal government, it is very much less certain that it will ever get built.

This is important because the COSEWIC decision (upon which the federal government relied to make its status change under SARA) needs to weigh and distinguish actual threats (occurring in the here and now or likely to occur in the near future) from potential threats (which may or not occur and may or may not have an impact on the species). If the pipeline does get built and increases ship traffic this would change the increase in ship traffic from a potential threat to an actual threat and could change the status of the humpback whale again.

The Real Question – Why Now?

Finally, many have questioned the timing of the humpback whale announcement by the federal government given that it is to make its decision on the Northern Gateway proposal in June of 2014. What is troubling more generally is that the government appears to have acted rather efficiently in making the final decision on the humpback whale, yet many, many species – assessed before and at greater risk than the humpback whale – languish (for up to five years in some cases) without final SARA listing decisions by the government (see Such delays have been the subject of court actions against the federal government.

In summary, critical comments on government actions and policy are certainly fair game – we just need to make sure we are criticizing the right things.

Written by Rick Taylor, Professor of Zoology and Director, Beaty Biodiversity Museum, UBC

Photo: Humpback Whale by Andrew Trites